Commentary. Crowds gathered in Venezuela shouting ‘With Maduro I’m safe.’ But the chavista president’s electoral victory is not recognized by the opposition or his opponent, and turnout was a record low.

Maduro’s new government faces steep challenges

“Vamos, Nico!” A crowd of red shirts gathered in the center of Caracas on Sunday night, when the National Electoral Council declared Nicolás Maduro the winner of the Venezuelan presidential elections. The current president gained 67.7 of the vote against the 21.1 percent of the main opponent, the former governor (and former Chavista) Henri Falcón. The other candidates were very low: 10.8 percent for the evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci and only 0.4 percent for Quijada. His victory came without violent incidents and under the watch of a large group of international observers.

Therefore, Maduro will govern for other six years (from 2019 to 2025). However, Maduro’s victory is overshadowed by a refusal to recognise the results by the opposition, united in the MUD and in the Frente Amplio, and by the losing candidate Falcón, who said the elections were “devoid of legitimacy.”

In addition, we need to consider the low turnout: Just over 46 percent of people voted, according to the government, the lowest percentage in decades. It was far below the 65-67 percent forecast by the polls and which the chavista front hoped for. In the 2013 presidential elections, Maduro won over Henrique Capriles with more than seven million votes: 1.5 million more than those obtained on Sunday.

“How much I had been underestimated,” Maduro exclaimed in his speech after the results came out. “And instead we won these historic elections again.” It was a very emotional speech. Almost liberating, because the stakes were high. As he put it earlier: “Either the vote or the bullets,” given the threats coming from the United States and from the right-wing governments of Latin America. However, it was also the speech of a statesman. “I believe in peace, dialogue and the constitution,” he continued. That is why “I stretch my hands not only to the candidates who took part in the elections, but also to the opposition who did not take part. … I will summon all of them in the next few days to participate in a day of national dialogue to discuss the future of the country.

“Let’s be ready to defend Venezuela,” he concluded. While the crowd responded: “With Maduro, I’m safe!”

It is unlikely the opposition will accept Maduro’s invitation. Before the final figures were published, Falcón declared to the press that he did not recognize the legitimacy of these presidential elections, denouncing the “sale of votes” and the control of the PSUV, the president’s party, over many polling stations. And he asked for “new elections next October.”

But, above all, the opposition — more than 20 parties and organizations that had branded the presidential side as “a scam” and had not presented any candidate, asking Venezuelans to boycott the elections — considers the low turnout its political success. Therefore, it is possible that the opposition will be ready to take a stand against the government, probably with the support of the United States and its Latin American (but also EU) allies. Juan Pablo Guanipa, spokesman for Frente Amplio, reiterated that “the electoral process was a farce of a dictator who wants to stay in power without popular support.”

Before and during the election campaign the opposition showed itself to be divided and fragmented, without a decent program and a serious and strong leader. According to some analysts, the low turnout is not due to the support for the opposition parties, which have left the population alone and uninhibited, encouraging it to take to the streets, to rebel and to push the protest to the limits of civil war. Even in the regions, such as Táchira, where the demonstrations were more massive and violent, there was more apathy than mobilization in favor of abstentions. In addition, the enormous difficulties of daily life, with a soaring inflation rate ($1 is currently worth 856,000 bolívares), have caused the population to greatly distrust all politicians.

Behind the opposition, however, the aggressive shadow of the Trump administration is spreading, which has already declared that it does not recognize the result of the presidential elections. Nor does the Lima Group, which brings together 14 Latin American countries, most of which are governed by the right-wing. The United States is threatening new and harsh sanctions that could resemble the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on Cuba more than 50 years ago.

Faced by this difficult situation, the core of chavismo has resisted, as demonstrated by the almost six million votes gained by Maduro. Despite the “economic war” and the very harsh living conditions, despite an aggressive internal and international media campaign, despite threats from the US and the hostility of neighboring countries, millions of people have revived their faith in the 21st century socialism initiated by Chávez. To these supporters we need to add the renewed support of the military, as demonstrated by the words spent on Sunday evening by the Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López: “In Venezuela, peace and democracy have once again won.”

The “civic-military union” can form the basis of the new Maduro government. But it will hardly be enough for the great challenges it will have to face: rebuilding an economy that will allow Venezuelans to live a dignified life, re-establishing a national dialogue and, above all, tackling the aggressiveness of the United States and its neo-colonial Latin American allies. For these reasons, Maduro needs to broaden the social base of his government. He would need to create an alliance or at least a dialogue with other political forces in order to start the process of social reconciliation of a country today divided, tired, hungry and disappointed. A political solution to the crisis was also the recommendation of Pope Francis in his speech on Sunday. In essence, the president would need a less indecent and corrupt opposition than the present one, willing to set aside its own interests for those of the country. We need to hope, albeit with little hope, that Falcón will not only be a just new mask of the opposition.

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